When it comes to going off in a new direction in terms of coming up with a different approach, how does a band go from being compared to such seemingly contradictory sources as the Byrds and Burt Bacharach to something far more contemporary, such as the New Pornographers? Well, the Orange Peels have done just that with their fifth and latest release, Sun Moon, which is out on Minty Fresh and Mystery Lawn Music on May 14. PopMatters interviewed main songwriter Allen Clapp about the changes in the band’s working arrangements, their use of Kickstarter to fund vinyl pressings of the new album, and how technology is having an effect (sometimes for good, sometimes for ill) on those who want to connect with music in different ways. In addition to the exclusive stream of Sun Moon, PopMatters is also premiering the Orange Peels’ new video for the track “The Words Don’t Work”.
The Orange Peels - “The Words Don’t Work” (PopMatters video premiere)
PopMatters: In the past, the band has been compared to the Byrds, the Beach Boys, and Burt Bacharach. On Sun Moon, there’s a real New Pornographers meets Todd Rundgren vibe to the proceedings, to these ears. How did you approach going off in what appears to be a new direction musically?
Allen Clapp: I don’t know if we ever determined the direction we were headed, we merely set out and Sun Moon is where we arrived. It was a different direction for sure, but for us, the destination only really became clear after we had gotten there. I agree that it’s a different sound, because we were fairly well aware of that along the way. But as far as what sound that was, the only thing that was obvious was that it was big, and there didn’t seem to be any boundaries. So we just kind of kept going. I’m still not certain what it is we’ve made here, and I really like that about this album. When it was finished, it was difficult to come up with a name for it. I wanted to call it Tangents for a while, but we all agreed that made it sound like some kind of rarities collection. Sun Moon was nice because the sun and moon are such a part of our lives, but a thing or a place called Sun Moon is ambiguous, and kind of suggests an alternate reality. So maybe this is what the Orange Peels sound like in this alternate universe?
PopMatters: It turns out that while you’re the band’s main songwriter, you were busy producing other bands and running your boutique music label, Mystery Lawn Music, when it came time to make Sun Moon. For this album, bassist and founding member Jill Pries really spearheaded getting the band back into the studio. As a result, was this more of a collaborative effort by the band more so than on albums’ past? How was making this record different from the others?
Allen Clapp: I am usually the band’s main songwriter, and in the past, it’s been me bringing 95 percent of the songs in and then the band will learn and record them as the Orange Peels. Over the past decade, I started producing albums for other bands, and was really surprised by how much I enjoyed that part of the creative process. Working on other people’s music in that capacity is really rewarding and different from working on your own songs, because you have both an insider and outsider perspective on it. At any rate, yeah—the production work kind of spun off into a little musical community in San Francisco out of which many creative connections were formed and it was all pretty exciting. The past couple years have been very creative and collaborative in that sense.
In the midst of all this, I probably wasn’t giving the Orange Peels the attention the band deserved—partly because I was so involved in all the other Mystery Lawn productions and shows going on, and partly because the band was halfway through creating this music that I didn’t fully understand. So Jill just started inviting the rest of the band over for sessions, and at this point, I didn’t have anything else written for the album. So we would get together and just start making music, and without fail, we would come up with an entire song arrangement in two hours. Then we’d set up microphones in the house and record the thing we had just composed. Later, I’d go back and write lyrics, vocal melodies, piano parts, and add some mellotrons or string synths. Half the songs on the album were done like this. I think that’s one reason I’m still surprised by the record when I hear it now. There’s something so fresh and exciting about those tracks. It’s the sound of a band inventing a song, and I think it works so well because John Moremen (lead guitar) and Gabriel Coan (drums) are really suited to working in the moment.
PopMatters: This album was funded using Kickstarter. Even though you’re on a rather well-known indie label, Minty Fresh, is that a reflection of state of affairs for bands on smaller labels? Were you able to meet your goal and how do you feel Kickstarter is changing the landscape for making records that indie bands want to record?
Allen Clapp: Well, we only really funded the vinyl pressing through Kickstarter. We’ve invested in our own recording studio for years, and at this point, we can pretty much record an album on our own without any upfront costs to the band. So yeah, we were successful in our Kickstarter project, and that was actually really exciting—and a bit nerve-wracking! I mean, if you don’t reach your goal, you get nothing, and if you reach it, you get funded. It’s all happening very publicly, so there’s this scary element to the campaign. I mean, we’re all publicizing this thing on social media, and you’re just thinking, “Crap…if we fail, we fail in public.” So we were grateful to get the vinyl funded! Some of our fans were very generous and obviously just wanted to help the project along, so that was incredibly humbling.
I think it’s a great model for creative people—pre-sell this thing you’re working on, and have your fans participate in the process. It’s one of the better things happening on the web right now. I think for a lot of bands, it’s still a very exciting thing to have a physical product at the end of the creative process—it’s like proof that you accomplished something. So selling things digitally on iTunes and Amazon is great, but it’s not quite as fulfilling as having your songs on a vinyl LP or even a CD. In our case, we manufacture the vinyl and CDs ourselves, and then we distribute through Minty Fresh. I mean, the old model was: the label pays for all that upfront, but then you get charged back out of future sales. The band ends up paying for the product either way. This gives us more control over the manufacturing cost and process, and we still get the distribution of a big indie like Minty Fresh, so I think it’s a great model moving forward. The source of the funding is the big difference. Instead of receiving money (on loan) from a label, you’re getting it upfront from the fans in the form of advance sales. It’s an incredibly liberating concept for artists—especially if you have a strong DIY ethic.
PopMatters: Speaking of Minty Fresh, what is your relationship with the label, and how does it feel to be part of something that has a pretty impressive roster of acts, past and present? How have the band and label survived since the ‘90s?
Allen Clapp: I had my first contact with Minty Fresh in 1995 in the form of a fan letter from their A&R person, Anthony Musiala. I had heard of the label—they had put out the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group and the Cardigans, and I couldn’t believe this label was sending me a letter. We eventually signed with them, and the experience was pretty amazing. They flew us to Minneapolis to finish recording our debut album, brought us out to New York for CMJ in 1997, and introduced us to all sorts of wonderful creative people. We parted ways in 2001, and put out our second and third albums with SpinART and Parasol, but we always stayed in touch. In 2008, Anthony called me up and asked if I’d be interested in writing a couple songs for potential TV and film usage, and I thought, hey, that’s kind of a cool idea. We got talking about stuff, and the next Orange Peels album, 2020, ended up on Minty Fresh in late 2009. One of those songs ended up in a huge South and Central America ad campaign for Samsung that really helped us out of a bad financial year when the economy was in the tank.
I think one of the main reasons the Orange Peels and Minty Fresh have survived is that we both evolved as the music industry was undergoing this massive tectonic shift. After our debut album on Minty Fresh, we actually decided to record and mix our second album at home (So Far, 2001). We really wanted to bring everything in-house and the idea of having someone else own our master recordings didn’t seem to make sense. Minty Fresh moved to a licensing model a few years later, and by the time we reconnected, we were completely on the same page. Ultimately, you benefit by being associated with other artists on a label, especially when they’re a great collection of international pop stars like you have with Minty Fresh.
PopMatters: Since the band is also part of the Mystery Lawn Music roster, what sort of things are you committed to releasing? What are you looking for when it comes to making a band part of the Mystery Lawn Music roster?
Allen Clapp: I think to be on Mystery Lawn, you have to be doing something magical. It doesn’t really have to do with genre or style, it has to do with emotional magic. There’s a bunch of different stuff on the label right now that stylistically doesn’t seem to make sense. But if you go a level or two deeper, it makes perfect sense. I think all the music on the label shares something I call “emotional source code”. You know when it’s there. We’ve got sunny California pop (the Corner Laughers), dark northern California mood music (the Hollyhocks), mid-‘60s international pop (Jim Ruiz Set), alt-Americana piano rock (William Cleere & the Marvellous Fellas), west coast psych-pop (Agony Aunts), progressive, melodic instrumental rock (Flotation Device), and a wildly successful kindie-pop artist (Alison Faith Levy). There’s more on the way for 2013, so stay tuned.
PopMatters: The band takes the rather unique approach of listing three songs on the front cover of the new record—“Your New Heroes”, “Æther Tide”, and “Bicentennial Bridge”. Are those the songs you’re hoping that fans (or maybe even radio) will zero in on and draw more attention to?
Allen Clapp: It’s kind of a throwback to the mid-‘60s when they would list song titles on the album cover. I’ve always liked that. I’m not sure exactly what it does, other than to give you another graphic element, and an opportunity to include a few words to give a quick, impressionistic picture of what the listener might be able to expect. I think I chose those three song titles because I like way they sound, and the way they help evoke a sense that this record isn’t gonna be filled with a bunch of third-rate power pop.
PopMatters: “It seems that the ones and zeroes / Have become the new heroes,” goes a line from “Your New Heroes”, which seems to be a comment on the pervasiveness of new technology. What is the band’s take on how digital technology is shaping the musical landscape?
Allen Clapp: I’m pretty happy that line came to me…it really anchored the song. I think I was heading in a direction of writing a song about how people seem to be losing touch with the natural world, even though there’s this heightened sense of environmentalism occurring. I mean, you’ll be out in nature, hiking in the Santa Cruz Mountains, marveling at a hawk or a newt or a snake, and people just shuffle by looking down at their smartphone. It’s weird! The other weird thing I see happening everywhere is people not really being there because of this “connectedness” they feel like they have to be participating in. I think there’s a big difference between being connected and being engaged with your surroundings in real-time. So the song is about someone who’s used to this automated kind of digital world and has a sudden realization that they’ve been missing out on deeper experiences because of it.
As far as how digital technology affects the music landscape, I think it has done some wonderful things and some harmful things. I think as a distribution method, it makes hearing new music much more convenient. At the same time, I think it makes it a little less special. To have to go out and track down something you want gives you a different relationship to that thing than simply clicking it on your phone. There is still a whole record-collecting culture that will never disappear, and I’m glad it exists. It keeps alive the relationship between music and music lovers in a very tangible way. I have a friend who comes over every once in a while and we listen to records over these Altec 604 speakers from the late 1940s—the same speakers a lot of mid-century classics were monitored and mixed on. He was telling me he just had this realization when he was creating a “tiki playlist” that he just felt like he had completely sold out to digital technology, and I think I know what he means. There’s a luxury about manually putting a record on the turntable and flipping it over after 20 minutes. You get to participate in playing this music by physically interacting with it. Having a playlist on a computer is like removing yourself from the process by one layer, and I think the more removed we are from art, the less valuable it becomes to us.
PopMatters: What’s next for the Orange Peels after making this record? The YouTube video introducing this record notes that it typically takes four years between releases, so can we expect a new record sometime in 2017?
Allen Clapp: Ugh. I sure hope it doesn’t take that long. I say this every time we release an album, but I think we’ll have a follow-up record much sooner next time. We’re actually already talking about renting a house somewhere in the mountains and just going away for a week to get going on it. I would love it if we could break the four-year cycle!